These photographs are a document of the resurgence of Maori facial tattoo. Generations of Maori people have been denied ta moko as a part of modern Maori life, and only in recent years has it been painfully reclaimed by Maori people of all occupations and ages: political leaders, Rastafarians, lawyers, teachers and gang members. This resurgence marks a renewed pride in the heritage of Maori tradition and a recognition of its enduring relevance in modern Maori life. As our guide, Pita Turei, said, “When they ask what it meant that so many people took the moko at once, tell them it was a movement of the people who turned away from the darkness of denial and said, I will never pretend I am white again. I will never pretend I am not of this earth.”
There are as many meanings for moko as there are people who wear it. As with non-Maori tattooing practices, the marking of the body marks a transition in one’s life: an event made visible but mysterious on the skin. Though worn on the body, moko is often intensely felt in the soul, and becomes for many an impetus for life change: a cessation of drinking and taking drugs, or a vow to learn the Maori tongue. The marks relate the wearer’s sacred genealogy and history in its abstract and curvilinear designs. In discussions with a wearer about his or her moko, the most fundamental beliefs and defining moments of their life are often disclosed, for the meaning of moko is intensely personal.
Few take the decision to wear it lightly. The recipient first prepares for moko by thinking long about it, sometimes for years, and then talking at length with one’s family and tribe, a dialogue that continues often for months. Usually permission must be granted from the elders, and the family agrees upon the design. Sometimes the pattern is inherited from an ancestor; other times it is created specifically for the wearer by a close relative or a ta moko artist who researches the patterns of the recipient’s whakapapa ( genealogy.) Patterns are sometimes inspired by a dream. Many prayers and rituals are inked into the skin with the pigment of the moko.
Maori are prepared to fight to protect their traditions, to hide them, if necessary, from the bored, fascinated eyes of a world hungry for the “exotic.” Though they do not feel compelled to share their culture with those who do not respect it, they are eager to educate others who are willing to understand. They want to show them that there is important, sacrosanct meaning behind the beauty of the designs, in order to further protect the art from those who look purely out of horrified curiosity or who attempt to appropriate the patterns for uses other than those that are personal and sacred.
For these reasons, Neleman’s bid to photograph ta moko was first met with suspicion and reticence, then in most cases, a relenting trust. Some refused to be photographed at all and others agreed only after a respected leader signaled approval. Fearing exploitation, Maori ta moko artists and wearers were firm in their insistence that any photographs would e taken only under Maori terms. Intellectual property rights and all copyrights were to remain with the subjects. Neleman was granted only the right to publish a book and to exhibit the photographs in a gallery or museum, and Maori participation in each stage of the book was guaranteed. Resulting profits were to come back to the Maori community in a fund to be established by ta moko proponents.
The Rastafarians of the Ngati Porou tribe requested as a condition of their participation that the effort be dedicated to the return of the moko mokai, the heads of Maori ancestors kept in museums around the world. Thus, the project has become a proposal for an exchange: images of living moko are to be revealed to the world with a plea for the return of the moko mokai to their homeland Aotearoa.
“A book that will change the way we see ourselves.”
“Neleman’s book is striking!”
-New Zealand Times
“Neleman’s best pictures capture the modern face of modern ta moko.”
-Sunday Star Times
“Neleman’s book is more than skin deep.”
-The Weekend Herald
“Neleman is the messenger of the Maori story.”
“Neleman displays the triumph of a native people that can now look back through his images upon their own rich tradition…these images reflect our fascination with tribal tradition and spiritual dignity.”
“Neleman sets pace for Biennale de Lyon.”
-Le Journal des Artes